The boys in blue marshalled by their revolutionary coach rarely fail. They step on the pitch calm, confident and prepared. The Mancunians, in their thousands, pack the stadium to full capacity on what has become an almost routine display of footballing excellence. Every attack eliciting anticipatory exhales, the cold in their breath visible on a typically cold and grey Manchester afternoon.
An Ederson golf-swing takes the ball from the six-yard box into Villa’s third, flicked on, off the head of Gabriel Jesus. One bounce, a second bounce, the crowd stand…a first touch pushes the ball into the box, his second touch puts the ball into the net. Raheem Sterling puts City a goal up.
It’s classic Raheem Sterling, scampering in behind at lightning speed, arms bent before putting it through the keeper’s legs in a manner familiar to anybody who has watched the boy from Brent since Brent.
Living in Manchester has meant I have been afforded the privilege of being able to watch my club play live and often. The pandemic brought with it challenges that continue to make it difficult for me to watch Guardiola’s Levitating Blues in person however the last time I did, I hold with a great fondness.
That 3-0 win to Villa is a game that has aged with a sensitivity for numerous, far-reaching narratives, bringing many of them together in a poetic way. Amongst that side peppered with legends of the sport stood the protagonist for today’s piece, the scorer of City’s first and Manchester City’s number 7: Raheem Sterling. In fact, if I were to nominate a protagonist, the main character not only for this piece, but to centre Pep Guardiola’s City, the film around – Raheem Shaquille Sterling MBE would be cast in that role without much hesitation or doubt.
There’s this sense of faux familiarity that accompanies Raheem. The country has followed his journey like a neighbour peering through a gap in the blinds for as long as we can remember and it feels as though the 26 year old has played a career’s worth of minutes already.
At 17 years old, Raheem had already made debuts for both club and country, appearing for Liverpool in a league game against Manchester City and for the national team as the 5th youngest England debutant in history at the time. When Raheem first started getting senior minutes in 2012, discussion around his career trajectory was as divisive as the discussions that have followed him in the decade since.
Scouring internet forums from 2011/12 bring forth comments about the 15, almost 16 year old that range from:
“I feel like every single one of these 16 year old wonderkids ends up a bust,” and “so he is useless and an idiot,” to “very impressive for a kid that age. He's quick, plays good passes and plays maturely.”
For some of the most accomplished minds of the sport Sterling’s quality was clear from an early age. Henoc Mukendi (ex-Liverpool player) recalls a discussion the Liverpool academy players had with Rodolfo Borrell many years ago.
Borrell, the current Manchester City assistant coach, was a youth coach at Barcelona’s La Masia between 1995 and 2008 overseeing the development of some of football’s greats: Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas…Lionel Messi. In 2009, Borrell took charge of the academy and reserve sides of Liverpool. As the Liverpool youth players inquired about Rodolfo’s experience, curious to find out how good the likes of Lionel Messi were, they were told by the current City assistant, that in terms of ability, Lionel Messi was the greatest youth player he’d seen. Shock.
The player he put second to Lionel Messi though? Well, he sat in that very room, right near the front. Borrell proclaimed it was a young Raheem Sterling who was second only to the greatest of all time.
Given this anecdote, it is unusual that there is this tendency for talk about Raheem Sterling to be in a manner that often attributes his successes to others, withdrawing Sterling from his own story. Shouts of system player, late bloomer and how anybody could do what Sterling does are as unfounded as they are common. If others could match Sterling’s contributions so effortlessly, it is illuminating that very few do. As Gary Lineker touches upon ever so often, if tap-ins and the ‘easy goals’ were so easy, everyone would be doing it.
At times, Sterling’s wildly talented contemporaries in the same systems have had less involvement in the team’s successes with fewer goal contributions. This is nothing to be ashamed of, they all play their part in the expansive trophy haul of the last 5 years or the continual international team’s progress, but Raheem Sterling as an ideal to chase and match will continue to remain a difficult task.
Although there have been various mentors who have aided in the actualisation of one of the finest wingers the league has seen (at City these include Guardiola and Arteta) Raheem Sterling has continually summited mountains deemed unscalable on lonely journeys. Rarely has there been time for Sterling to wait, rest and bask in the glory of these achievements before another expedition presents itself for Raheem to conquer.
If Sterling did get a chance to rest in the unrelenting conditions of the summit, he’d undoubtedly be greeted by a gracious, heartfelt appreciation but it would still fail to match the rapturous ovation he is deserving of. The crowds within the Etihad cheer with the utmost respect, whether he is coming on as a substitute or if it’s following the stadium announcer bellowing out that the scorer of the goal is “Raaaaa-heem Sterlinggg” as it commonly is.
Those cheers should reverberate across the planet and they echo through this piece. As we sit in the dark and quiet, at the end of the second act of Pep Guardiola’s City The Film, I suppose we cherish this as the perfect moment to reflect on Sterling’s story so far.
2017/18: The Centurions.
2018/19: The Fourmidables.
2020/21: The ‘Without-A-Catchy-Name but hey, they won the league’ side.
Pep Guardiola’s three Premier League titles over the last 4 years is a stat that puts him only behind Alex Ferguson in Premier League history – and already alongside Wenger and Mourinho’s Premier League hauls. An achievement this magnificent is only amplified by the narrow time period it has been accomplished within.
Surprisingly, however, is the fact that despite the narrow window of its achievement, there is only one outfield player that held their place as a starter for most of the campaign, through all 3 title winning sides. In this vast and talented squad that plays possibly the most dominant style of football to touch English soil, one man stood out to survive rotation, competition, changing systems and the harsh timetables of ‘every 3 days’.
You could go through each and every outfield player, the mainstay remains Raheem Sterling. In the title winning seasons respectively, 33 appearances, 34 appearances, 31 appearances – 29 starts, 34 starts, 28 starts.
In Sterling’s 33 appearances of 17/18, the Englishman became synonymous with saving City when they most needed him. A flurry of late goals ensured City maintained momentum, clutching 2 extra points from the final moments of games; vital points that ensured City finished exactly upon the historic 100 points mark.
To begin the season, Sterling made a substitute appearance vs Everton following a Kyle Walker red card in the 44th minute. City were a goal down to Koeman’s Everton courtesy of a Wayne Rooney goal. (What a sentence that is.) That game concluded with Raheem Sterling putting City level in the 82nd minute salvaging a key point against a side that had given Guardiola his biggest league defeat in the previous season.
The 97th minute winner against Bournemouth also comes to mind, a strike that Guardiola attributes to triggering off a win-streak that at the time broke English football records. That Sterling strike was the turning point, the catalyst, for the side that came to be known as the Centurions.
Perhaps most memorable was the winner against Southampton in which Sterling’s sublime curled strike from outside the box secured the win. City had won games in the three months before this game but a Romeu equaliser had put that record in jeopardy. In the 96th minute, Sterling made sure City continued steam-rolling the league in the inevitable manner they were used to at that point. In that beautiful chaos, the entire stadium erupted.
“In the locker room all the people, all the staff, how happy they were. I wanted to run after Raz but I am not quick enough.” – Pep Guardiola
If you’ve been on social media over the last few years, you’ll be familiar with the stats that accompany Sterling’s 2018/19 season. During this season, Sterling took the next step, firmly placing a foot onto the podium with the elites of the beautiful game. On the 30th of October, Sterling (53) topped goal contributions charts for the calendar year followed closely by Lionel Messi, a duo that act as a beautiful nod to the prophetic Borrell quotes from earlier.
The 17 goals, 10 assist league campaign too, was rewarded with the Football Writer’s Association Footballer of the Year and PFA Young Player of the Year awards – a double haul only matched by Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
The season concluded with City winning an unprecedented domestic treble, a feat Ferguson had infamously deemed impossible years ago and Sterling (alongside Bernardo) were City’s two best. In City’s greatest season, the PFA POTY runner-up was a linchpin that drove home win after win after win with performances that drew the highest praise.
"I have seen it written since the midweek internationals Sterling is England’s best player. He is much more than that.
He is now in the top five or six best attacking players in the world, in that group just below Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
His ambition, alongside Kylian Mbappe, should be to fill the post-Messi and Ronaldo void once they retire. He is a potential Ballon d’Or winner over the next four or five years.
I would go so far as to say there is a similarity with Cristiano Ronaldo’s development at Manchester United. Sterling has different traits, yet his capacity to get on the end of opportunities means he too can be prolific." - Jamie Carragher (2019)
The most recent title win came with some revisionism around Sterling’s involvement driven by the end of the season form but for a 38 game season, the Englishman was a fundamental assets that drove City to a league triumph after many had written the blue side of Manchester out, early on.
As the season began, Sterling provided an assist to Foden in a 3-1 win over Wolves – a bogey side for City in recent years. In a draw to Leeds, Sterling was City’s only scorer and the following game, Raheem captained City to a 1-0 win against Arsenal, again as the sole scorer.
City went through a run of questionable form until December but as the cold and gruelling winter arrived as it always does, City went unbeaten in the league until the dawn of spring. Following the 15th of December, it was win after win for 15 consecutive league games. Dominance; a run of results that won City the title, no doubt and Sterling was an ever-present, ever-productive figure throughout this period.
During this time, Sterling started 16 games, providing 12 goal contributions as well as proudly and aptly donning the armband in back to back games against Liverpool, Spurs and Everton. He’d done his part. Sure, he fell out of favour as March began but by then the heavy lifting of the league had passed. The league had been won, again.
Considering Sterling’s Premier league career more widely, his achievements lie in all-time territory. For goal involvement before turning 27, Sterling is 7th. The 6 players he shares company with, all centre-forwards, would not look out of place when discussing some of the league’s most impressive players.
Wayne Rooney, Shearer, Harry Kane, Theirry Henry, Robbie Fowler, Owen and our winger Raz. A resume of 97 goals and 51 assists, 3 league titles including back to back wins amassing a record 198 points, at the age of 26 places him as one of the greats. There is a numbness to what we have seen but make no mistake, it is remarkable and continually forgotten in the present.
One of the most impressive parts of Sterling’s career has been the adaptability and completeness he has demonstrated in these aforementioned campaigns. Sterling cannot be a system player because he has excelled in more systems than many do across their careers. As Euro 2020’s best player, he played down the left, an inverted winger who doubled up as the second striker.
The international stage offers more space than Manchester City’s opponents typically do and Sterling was equally dangerous in transition as he has been against compact sides. His versatility was on show within the same competition as he moved to the right wing against Denmark, a game in which he broke the single game record for take-ons and touches in the opposition box. His effectiveness as an outlet in extra-time vs Denmark ensured England prevented Denmark from sustaining pressure. England had made the final.
Across the title winning campaigns, Guardiola has deployed Raheem as a traditional wide right-winger; a role in which he amassed 28 goal contributions in the league. The following season, Sterling was one of City’s two best players, as an inverted left winger and finally, in 20/21, Guardiola opted for a sort of 3133 shape and here Sterling played minutes on both sides. Sterling thrived again, this time often without a #9 to supply given the fact that City simply didn’t play with one. Instead, Sterling took responsibility, scoring but more so as playmaker for Ilkay, City’s primary scorer during the winning run that saw City become champions.
2017's traditional right-winger, 2019's free-scoring inverted left-winger, a starting winger in the 3133 and a centre-forward that has displayed strong fundamentals across his career, yes, including this season; Sterling possesses the positional sense, intelligence and skillset to thrive in all three positions of the front line, something very few on the planet can do to a title-winning level. You’d be hard pushed to name three.
"He can play across the front line, I played him [as a] striker because I think he can play it.
As a young player and in the youth team at Liverpool he's played as a striker and he's got the qualities to do it." - Brendan Rodgers (2014)
Looking towards games like the ones against Southampton and PSG this season, Sterling’s strong centre-forward fundamentals were on display in the form of link-up, hold-up and pressing from the front. The score line would not corroborate this take but to analyse the performance shows an attacker with some of the finest off the ball movement on the planet, possibly Raheem’s strongest attacking quality and something we’ve known from his numerous appearances out wide.
Time and again, Sterling would find himself waiting, positioned in the ‘tap-in’ zones of the second 6-yard box (a term coined by Ray Harford, who had told Alan Shearer that - that is where you’ll you get most of your goals) only to not receive the final ball. In games in which Sterling has played CF and made promising actions, like all strikers his output has remained partially dependant on the service and build-up alongside him.
Over time, it is likely a rapport will develop between these various talented individuals however in these limited cameos, context provides additional reasoning as to why a lack of goals shouldn’t be solely explained by a lack of confidence or rhythm for Sterling. That matters but for players to score, there usually has to be a harmonious footballing environment that facilitates the forward’s game and an individual that is in good form.
It is clear Raheem is an utterly distinctive profile; one that is misunderstood but provides undisputed value, for reasons including and in addition to the centre-forward traits mentioned above.
Sterling’s ‘runner’ profile is imperative for a City side that consists heavily of ball-to-feet, technical midfielder types. With numerous inverted players who enjoy dropping deep to receive the ball, without a threat in behind the opponent’s backline, the opposition defence can play without the necessary worry of the problems behind them. For the numerous talented passers City have, their quality is wasted if there isn’t an attacker to aim for.
There is more than meets the eye with the 26 year old attacker. Characterising Sterling in this way illustrates some of what makes his inclusion as the mainstay in each title win so far so justified. Although Raheem has missed games this season, his cameos are promising and the fundamentals that made him so frightening for leagues and nations across the planet are still present. Perhaps, they warrant more minutes.
Perhaps, Raheem alongside the other two runners in Foden and Jesus could be a tantalising, fluid and effective option for City – as City’s three best front-line pressers, ahead of a Gundogan, Rodri, Bernardo midfield three. A set-up that ties in the ideas of traditional width, deliberate, low cut-backs and central compactness in transition seen across the Centurions’ side and the 3133 system of 20/21. It combines to utilise the many strengths Sterling has shown in the Guardiola systems of the last few years.
Of course it is merely a suggestion, there will be many other solutions given City’s quality but for half a decade, City have been at their best with a strong Raheem Sterling at their core.
Getting the best out of a player that has been so integral to some of the most impressive team achievements in British history would never not be a worthwhile endeavour.
After all, the six players mentioned have shared a grand total of 8 minutes on the field together this season and it does not come as a surprise that in those 8 minutes against Brugge, Raheem Sterling made his way onto the scoresheet.
Dear Raheem Shaquille Sterling: Raz, Heemio, the Golden Boy, the Most Hated One, the Football Writer’s Footballer of the Year, Ballon d’Or nominee and 3 time Premier League winner, I hold a sense of familiarity not through the numerous, fabricated stories of bling and excess, authored by those uncomfortable with an expressive young black boy sitting rightfully on this generation’s throne.
Rather, I feel a familiarity through the shared and relatable experience that tells the story of the boy in a vast, expanding and unfamiliar world, navigating the atypical challenges with a stoic, mindful steeliness that drags the boy from Brent, from Brent and onto the pitch of Wembley Stadium visible from his childhood home. Maybe I’m speaking for the immigrants of Britain or the people who were told they could never achieve their ambitions, maybe I’m speaking for the people who worked to win the race despite starting far behind. I know that I am speaking for myself.
Socioeconomic factors could have dragged Sterling down an alternative path: the media’s treatment of Raheem could’ve deteriorated his psychological before his career blossomed, the abuse could’ve abraded the inner-child. And with any of these scenarios, I don’t think anybody could have deemed their fruition unreasonable or surprising.
In defying these odds, Raheem has succeeded as an individual at the highest level but most admirably positioned himself in a role where he voices a sensitivity for others; as in his campaigns against racism, not because he couldn’t deal with it (of course Raheem could) but because of his concern for others who may not.
As I write this, Sterling has unveiled his foundation at Ark Elvin Academy, his former school with the vision to educate, empower and inspire the youth, offering opportunities that otherwise would be difficult to come by, enabling as many young people like him to dream, to succeed.
This quality in Raheem is present throughout the sport too; his tutelage of the younger players is seen through his role as a person his England team-mates look up to. It extends to club level, with his mentorship of Cole Palmer currently and Phil Foden too, who spoke about how important Sterling was to his development.
‘I’ve had my fair share of [the media on my back] but not like him. If I ever need help with anything, I always go to [Sterling] for advice. He’s a leader, always backing up what he believes in and he’s expressed that to the world. [He’s] shown people should never be afraid to speak up.’ - Phil Foden
With good intentions, I’ve said that ‘sometimes I don’t think Sterling realises how good he really is’ in games where Sterling may look to be playing with the brakes on (even so he’ll be an effervescent, unrelenting threat for the opponents).
Qualifying all of his attributes, the ability to work hard, dribble inside or outside, his movement off the ball, the ability to play on both sides and centrally, the strength to hold up play, the deliberate cutbacks and the wonderful goal output – at Raheem’s best he is unequivocally one of the finest players on the planet. A wildly useful player against low blocks and in transition equally, I’ve often said top 5.
At times, yes, Sterling might lack the confidence we’ve seen in his best moments and even though I’d love for him to be perfectly confident always, fluctuations are to be expected. Maybe they’d be less frequent with an unrelenting, blind support always. Given the levels he’s played at prior, maybe the universe thought it best for the rest of the footballing world to prevent a Raheem Sterling in receipt of universal praise. A perfectly confident Raheem Sterling for an entire career, the universe couldn’t be that unfair on his opposition?
Reflecting upon my quote though, it is clear a player does not defy odds as Sterling has done without knowing how good they are and can be. Raheem is undoubtedly someone who channels the negative into a motivating force too and both factors here make my statement above slightly unfounded.
In 2019, Sterling spoke about how the Ballon d’Or podium was a target he'd set his eyes upon. That is a target I co-sign entirely. That is a player that realises how good they can be. Sterling should remember his quality as one of the greats when he stands up and faces a defender one vs one, when he dribbles towards and past them and when he’s through on goal. Raheem will know, as I know, that the sun will shine on a brighter day once again.
Vincent Kompany finds the right words as he always does in eulogising Sterling. His succinct reflection captures the essence of Sterling and how there has never been a trial he has been completely halted by.
The Hated One blamed for the Euro '16 disappointments followed it up by carrying England to the Euro 2020 final with 20 goal contributions in his prior 19 England games (June 2021) – a run of international form unmatched by any of the Golden Generation. England’s second most succesful finish had been spearheaded by a player many called for to be dropped, in what goes down as one of the greatest individual tournaments from an England player, ever. The King of Wembley.
People talk but the words of 2021 will subside like the words of 2020, 2019, 2018…2012. The Ballon d’Or lists await. The spaces Messi and Ronaldo vacate await and further cementing a place in the pantheon of Manchester City legends also await; a group that will go down in football folklore forever.
For whatever he wants to achieve, Raheem has the will that ensures it’s only a matter of time but for now, I would love for Pep’s most played player ever to take main stage in this film’s current act.
City have a fourth league title to win and the boy from Brent is at his best when he’s top of the league.
Sincerely Manchester City and Umir.
Written by Umir – @Umirf1